Watch out for a Raikkonen renaissance at the Belgian Grand Prix
It has been a difficult season for him, but the Hungarian Grand Prix showed some light at the end of the tunnel for Kimi Raikkonen. Since rejoining Ferrari at the start of the season, he has finished inside the points seven times, but the race at the Hungaroring was the first time he had finished inside the top six. He is also yet to finish ahead of team mate Fernando Alonso in a race.
He currently sits 12th in the championship which, if the season finished today, would be his worst drivers’ championship finish ever. This includes his maiden Formula One season back in 2001 for Sauber which he ended tenth, before which he had only a season of car racing experience (Max Verstappen, take note).
The crash at Silverstone might have grabbed the headlines but it is Raikkonen’s consistent lack of performance which is notable. It is as if old habits have returned. Kimi’s F1 career is of course split into two distinct parts, before and after his two-year break to try his hand at rallying. But even within those two sections, it is almost as if there have been two drivers taking his place.
Lewis Hamilton -143
Nico Rosberg +160
Daniel Ricciardo +1600
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
At McLaren between 2002 and 2006, Raikkonen was regarded as one of the fastest drivers ever, and was only robbed of the 2005 championship by an incredibly unreliable car. But after moving to Ferrari, his performances became erratic. Even in winning the championship in 2007, he was unconvincing, with team mate Felipe Massa, previously (and since) regarded as an unremarkable driver, proving a match over their two-and-a-half years as team mates.
Throughout his time at Ferrari, speculation was rampant that he had lost motivation, perhaps encouraged by his typically Finnish approach to dealing with the media (i.e. barely) and alcohol (i.e. drinking lots of it). When it was announced he was being replaced by Fernando Alonso at the team, it was widely believed that he was being paid to leave and do something else, such as flinging Citroens between and into trees.
Which leads to one theory doing the rounds this year – that Raikkonen’s return to F1 in 2012 with Lotus was primarily motivated by money. This shouldn’t really be a shock, but there’s more to it: basically that after Kimi’s Ferrari pay-off finished, he needed to replace that source of income, so he needed to return to F1 with the purpose of getting back into Ferrari, after which he could go back to not caring. Thus, it would explain his exceptional first two seasons at Lotus and his sudden drop-off in performance this year.
But to be honest, this all seems a bit too cynical. To assume that Raikkonen had the next three years mapped out when he returned ignores the reality of the situation. Lotus ran out of money last year, to the point where Kimi wasn’t even being paid on time, and if you’re a former world champion who has finished third and fifth in the last two championships, you have enough market value to avoid this. The fact that Lotus have continued to tail off dramatically this season suggests he made the correct call to leave.
However, rejoining Ferrari might not have been the most sensible move, even if it made sense at the time. Yes, he was rejoining the team with whom he won the championship, but he was never entirely comfortable there, and he was to be driving alongside Fernando Alonso, probably the fastest and most consistent driver in F1 who has outperformed his team mates and machinery year in year out for a decade.
Before the start of the 2014 season, there were forecasts of tension and bust-ups as the two former champions battled for victory. There has been none of this, mainly because Kimi hasn’t got close enough to create any tension – not only has he been way behind his team mate, but Ferrari have had their worst season for over twenty years, with Alonso doing a remarkable job in putting himself fourth in the standings.
But the Belgian Grand Prix provides a massive opportunity for Raikkonen to kick on, as it is with Spa-Francorchamps that he has his best relationship within the sport. He won here for McLaren in 2004 and 2005, Ferrari in 2007 and 2009, and came close to a win in 2008 but for a mistake while battling Lewis Hamilton on a damp track. He also finished third here in 2012.
If there are races missing here, it’s because they either weren’t held (2003, 2006) or because he retired due to mechanical problems (2001, 2002, 2013). In short: the guy’s quick here.
Spa is one of the most unorthodox circuits on the calendar, with its high-speed sweeping corners that would never be allowed today and its erratic, unpredictable climate. The races here are often amongst the most exciting of the season, although it’s going to have to be a special one this year to compete with Bahrain and Hungary.
Theoretically Mercedes should once again have the advantage in pace, and 2010 Spa winner Lewis Hamilton will begin as favourite, but the teams behind are closing, and as we saw in Hungary, they will be on the defensive if it starts to rain.
Raikkonen’s expertise here will be an enormous help to Ferrari, who sit third in the constructors’ championship (albeit mostly due to Alonso’s contributions) but are rapidly being caught by Williams, who have emerged as Mercedes’ closest challengers in the dry. Ferrari haven’t gone a season without a win since 1993, when Jean Todt arrived to kick-start the transformation of the team into world-beaters once again.
There are rumours of driver changes for next season or beyond, including the possible arrival of Sebastian Vettel, but in the medium-term, it seems as if the team’s decline could only be stemmed by the arrival of another Todt to transform the way the team is run into a more efficient unit.
However, that won’t happen overnight. In the short-term, this may be their best opportunity for a victory for the rest of the season, and it’s certainly Raikkonen’s best shot of some silverware.
Betting Instinct tip – Kimi Raikkonen to finish on the podium this weekend is +1400 with AllYouBet.ag
JAMES BENNETT is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.